Persimmonsby Joanne Nesbit
Known to some as the American persimmon or native persimmon, this fall fruit is familiar to folks in Brown County as the best makings for pudding.
A member of the genus Diospyros, the name meant "fruit of the gods" to the Greeks. Among its other names are Jove's fruit, possumwood, lotus tree, seeded plum, and winter plum.
The Forest Preserve District of Cook County Illinois knows just how Brown Countians feel about persimmons. "Late autumn, in southern Illinois and Indiana, is when the persimmon trees hang heavy with luscious fruit ready for picking: soft and squashy-dead ripe. Then we not only eat them raw, but we have those rare treats: persimmon pudding, persimmon pie, and upside-down cake covered with this fruit which has such a sweet juicy flesh and such unique flavor. Then the womenfolk make persimmon jelly and a syrup thick as molasses. Some still make `simmon beer'. Then the raccoons, foxes, squirrels, skunks, wild turkeys and bobwhite quail all have a feast. Then the possums get fat and sassy."
And if those uses aren't enough, consider persimmon brandy and coffee. During the Civil War, with the Union blockading all the Southern ports, it was impossible for the South to get coffee. They collected and roasted persimmon seeds for a palatable substitute drink.
This member of the ebony family that flowers in May and June and lets loose its succulent orange fruit in the fall provides chow for nearly all birds and mammals. Brown Countians just "doctor" it up a bit.
Oregon State University says that, "Unlike Asian persimmons, which tend to be eaten fresh, native persimmons tend to be baked into puddings, pies, and breads or mixed into ice cream. The Cherokee Indians were among the earliest noted bakers of the sweet loaves, which they served to the first Europeans. But it's the Algonquin Indians who are credited with our name for the fruit, from their word putchamin, pasiminan,or pessamin, depending on the dialect."
These early baking practices now leads to recipes with names such as Heavenly Persimmon Ice Cream Pie, Persimmon Whip, Fitzpatrick Persimmon Pudding, and Persimmon Cream Pie. One recipe archive on the Web lists five different recipes for persimmon pudding alone. And then there is Brown County Persimmon Fudge.
BROWN COUNTY PERSIMMON FUDGE
1 Cup persimmon pulp
Combine pulp, sugar, milk and syrup in large sauce pan. Cook slowly until mixture reaches soft ball stage or 230 degrees. Cool to lukewarm. Stir often. Add butter. Beat well. When mixture begins to thicken, stir in 1 cup chopped nuts. Spread in buttered 8 1/2 x 13 inch pan.
This unique fudge did not go unnoticed by Raymond Sokolov, food critic and author of "Why We Eat What We Eat," who writes that "Around places like Gnaw Bone you can find people making persimmon fudge and persimmon pudding."
Sokolov says Hoosiers thought that "the astringency of persimmons was somehow quenched by frost and that the good fruit was to be found only on the ground, not still attached to the tree." The author acknowledges that we are no longer living in 19th Century Brown County "where fallen persimmons were a godsend at harvest time," but Brown County folks still keep secret where some of those choice fruits can be found.
It is not only the orange fruit of the persimmon tree that is prized, but its wood is also. A Louisville firm produces for the golfing crowd persimmon woods and now a persimmon driver.
Persimmon is so popular that Texas sports a Persimmon Springs and a Persimmon Gap, Florida has the Wild Persimmon Trail. Then there is Persimmon Software, and one of Fiesta Tableware's colorsPersimmon.
There is also "Persimmon Hill," the magazine of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.
But still the favored use for persimmon is in a desSert. The "Original Bottorff Family Pudding" recipe found on the Web uses 3/4 C of graham cracker crumbs instead of the traditional flour. "The James Whitcomb Riley Cookbook" includes a recipe for "Indiana Persimmon Almond Pudding Cake." And one website includes "Nancy Reagan's Persimmon Pudding and Brandy Sauce," a pudding that includes raisins, chopped pecans, and, of course, three tablespoons of brandy.
Jerry Lehman of Terre Haute, Indiana maintains a website at http://www.nafex.org/persimmon2000.htm on behalf of the North American Fruit Explorers, Inc. Lehman says "Indiana and Illinois are two states where some of the best quality native persimmons are found." Now, you didn't have to tell a Brown Countian that. He already knew he could find a treasure just under that old persimmon tree.
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